Even though it’s only been two days since I made the initial post introducing the idea of what I’m calling “The World Workshop,” I’ve been aware I was going to be doing this for over a week. The rough sketch I uploaded last time was something I hammered out in a Whitehorse hotel room after all. So, even though I haven’t been talking about it, for the last ten days or so I’ve been thinking about what exactly I wanted to do.
So, today, I threw most of my ideas away.
It wasn’t that they were bad ideas – it’s just that they were very typical ideas for me. I said in my very first post that Dark Sun influenced the way I think and write, and that’s very apparent in how I tend to design settings. Much as Dark Sun turned elves into nomadic thieves and halflings into cannibals, I tend to look for traditional fantasy tropes to turn up on their head. Which is fine, great, dandy – except as I said before I’m expecting to be running a game for a bunch of people who’ve never played D&D before.
Sitting down to take my first whack at this thing, I realized that in some ways the setting is analogous to a pair of training wheels. Training wheels aren’t pretty and they aren’t flashy – what they do is prop the bike up while the rider learns how to pedal and steer. In the same sense, my natural instinct to create special effects and systems to reflect how different this world is should maybe be curbed. If someone is playing D&D for the first time ever, maybe I should just let them focus on mastering the basic fundamentals of the wizard class without dumping defiling and preserving on top of them.
This sort of changes things for me, in that I’m effectively making a commitment to operating within the bounds of “high fantasy” – the idea being that, if a player saw the Lord of the Rings films, he or she will be more or less prepared for the rules by which this world turns. Basically, I want to make the setting cool – but not so cool that players are distracted from learning how to play the game. This means some of the things (alignment and religion come to mind almost immediately) I would ordinarily change, I’m going to leave alone or at least make only minimal alterations to.
I’m actually kind of excited about this – approaching setting creation in this way is a new experience for me.
So, I’ve stated that my overriding goal is to maintain the core assumptions that the Dungeons & Dragons rules are built upon. Obviously, the first thing I need to do is take a look at those core assumptions – which can be found on page 150 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide:
- The World is a Fantastic Place: This isn’t really a problem. Magic is magical, mortals can channel the powers of the gods, elementals and demons and dragons all exist. I’m not about to change any of that.
- The World is Ancient: Hell yes. I love history, and I love to draw upon my knowledge of history when creating adventures. I have every intention of providing plenty of forgotten tombs, lost temples, ruined cities and other exciting venues that hint at things long gone. I intend to make as much use of the “official” history as possible, not so much Nerath as the older empires of Arkhosia and Bael Turath.
- The World is Mysterious and Monsters are Everywhere: These two core assumptions collectively form the basis for the “points of light” concept. Effectively the theory is that the majority of the world is uncivilized, untamed, and dangerous – the various civilized settlements form the myriad points of light in the darkness of the world. One of the core concepts I mentioned last time was that I wanted to put a greater emphasis on the city-state than the nation-state, and that fits this model perfectly – and gives ample reason for why the countryside beyond the immediate reach of cities and towns is so plagued by dangerous creatures.
- Adventurers are Exceptional: In my opinion this holds true for any campaign (chronicle, whatever), in any game system, run by any but the greenest Dungeon Master (Gamemaster, Storyteller, whatever). The simple fact is, the players are the main characters of the story being told. Period. It’s about them – make it about them. Being exceptional doesn’t automatically mean going for the Fellowship of the Ring style where every party member is the heir to the throne, an elven prince, or an immortal wizard whose duty is to unite all mankind in opposition to the Dark Lord. It just means that what they do has impact, and is important – hell, the absence of this is one of the key reasons I could never stay into World of Warcraft for more than a few months at a time.
- The Civilized Races Band Together: Another one that never exactly thrilled me. The different races are, well, different – and not just in terms of ability and skill bonuses. They’re different people, with different values, and different cultures – and so the idea that humans, dwarves, elves, dragonborn, etc. all live together in peace and harmony? Just doesn’t sit right with me. With this one I’m going to do my best to tread the middle ground – mingling between the “civilized” races will be common enough (at least in most places) but at the same time, I’m also going to put a lot of effort into seeing to it that each race has its own distinct feel – several feels, actually. It always bugged me that in most fantasy (games or fiction) humans break down into different ethnicities, but the elves (or whoever) are just one ubiquitous mono-people.
- Magic is not Everyday, but it is Natural: Much as I love the whole “she’s a witch! BURN HER!!!!” routine, I do have to admit that creating a society with that attitude toward magic isn’t exactly the most nurturing environment – new players might decide its just makes more sense to pursue a divine or martial class. So magic, in and of itself, isn’t going to be considered an abomination that must be destroyed, nor are wizards and sorcerers automatically seen as evil criminals. That said, there are magical practices that are going to get you in trouble – death cultists and demon worshipers, for example, may find themselves in pretty hot water if they don’t keep their less savory practices a secret.
- Gods and Primordials Shaped the World: I don’t particularly have a problem with the “default” creation myth – that the world was shaped by the primordials out of the Elemental Chaos, then given civility and permanence by the gods. The notion of a war between gods and primordial in the ancient prehistory of the cosmos is also fine with me. What I’m not so keen on is everyone and their uncle knowing that. Partly because of my own preferences as regards religion in the game, which I’ll discuss below.
- Gods are Distant: Not distant enough, in my opinion. It always struck me as odd that common, everyday people in almost every Dungeons & Dragons setting just take it as written that there’s a whole whack of gods out there. I understand the concept of polytheism, but everything just always struck me as being far too neat and tidy where gods and religion were concerned – something I personally suspect has more to do with Christian outrage over D&D “promoting devil-worship” in the 80’s than anything else. Mostly, I just want there to be a little more ambiguity about what a god would actually want, whether god A actually exists, whether god B would be his ally or enemy, etc. The pantheons of most D&D campaigns just feel a little too ThorPrayer to me.
Alright. So, I’ve gone over the core assumptions – made note of which ones fit perfectly, and which ones will need some minor adjustments, and made sure that the concepts I established previously will work with those assumptions. Next time, I’ll tackle some of the broad strokes of the setting – expanding on those core concepts I outlined earlier, and getting started on a proper map.